Last Saturday, May 1, the first of several statewide minimum wage increases in Virginia went into effect, securing pay raises for roughly 70,000 minimum wage workers. Now, wage workers in Virginia must be paid at least $9.50 an hour, 31 percent more than the federally mandated $7.25 an hour.
The last bump occurred in 2009, when the federal minimum wage increased 11 percent to $7.25 an hour from $6.55 an hour.
The bills to raise the state minimum wage passed the Virginia General Assembly along a party-line vote, with Republicans arguing that the increase will come at an especially difficult time for small businesses. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, was among the legislators who voted against the measure.
While low-wage workers and advocacy groups throughout the commonwealth are rejoicing, the local reaction among Rappahannock business owners is somewhat subdued.
Susan Huff, co-owner of Stonewall Abbey Wellness in Sperryville, said that the increase doesn’t affect her business much. Not including Huff and her partner, Gordon Wicks, Stonewall Abbey employs two staff members and three contractors.
“We start at $10.50 an hour,” Huff said. “And because we want people to stay, we give them every six months a $0.50 an hour increase. Our goal is to get everybody up to at least $15 an hour because you’ve got to give people a living wage.”
Virginia’s minimum wage will gradually rise dollar by dollar over the next five years until it reaches $15 an hour in January 2026. The measure applies to most workers, including those working in domestic service, those under the age of 18, and those with disabilities.
The gradual increase doesn’t bother Huff, she said, because it aligns with her business goals anyway. She added that part of the reason she wants to pay her employees well is because she wants to be able to hire people locally.
“You know, you’ve got to pay people,” she said. “But there are other folks who have many more employees than we do, and I know this [wage] jump’s gonna be a big deal for them.”
Early’s Carpet and Flooring in Amissville is one county business with more employees than Stonewall Abbey. Lorraine Early, owner and operator of Early’s Carpet, said typically their staff numbers hover around 22. The wage increase to $9.50 an hour won’t affect her business, she said, because like Stonewall Abbey they already pay above the new minimum wage. But the eventual hike to $15 an hour will prove more difficult.
“Unless the economy has changed a great deal, I don’t feel that $15 is where you should, you know, start anybody,” Early said. “That would be a pretty high wage to start someone that you have to train. And most of these people coming out of school do have to be trained.”
New hires at Early’s Carpet typically apprentice with more experienced employees for 2-5 years before they are able to work on their own.
“[Young people] do not come out of school with a lot of skills — I’m speaking of hands-on skills. It’s a lot to be taught,” Early said. She added that when vocational training is cut in schools, the burden of training often falls to employers. “And now they want to give them more money and give them to us with no skills,” she said.
Virginia’s minimum wage measure contains a provision allowing businesses to offer employees 75 percent of the minimum wage for on-the-job training — but only for the first 90 days. Early thinks the state should stay out of the equation altogether.
“I don’t think the government should be setting anything like that,” she said. “In some cases that [$7.25 minimum wage] might be needed. It depends on the skill of the person they’re hiring and the type of education they’ve been given. … I think it will hurt the economy.”
Early isn’t alone in worrying about the economic impacts of the increases. Some business advocates warn that on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis, the wage increase is poorly timed. Nicole Riley, Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Business, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “This could have a bit of a chilling effect on Virginia’s economy, especially for businesses that are trying to recover from the pandemic.”
But Huff is among the business owners celebrating the increase. “The timing wasn’t perfect,” she concedes. “But I think a counter to that … is that we’ve got to get people back, employed,” she said. “We’ve got to get people back out working who are hesitant to work because they make more money on unemployment right now. I think our wages are just too low.”